November/December 2016
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November/December 2016
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Detaining God's Children

By Gabriela Romeri

"Last night they found three little brothers in the desert," says Norma Lujan, a resident of El Paso, Texas, who has made a mission of comforting unaccompanied children caught and detained while trying to enter the United States.

The desert surrounding El Paso is the dangerous final leg of a long journey lasting several months for immigrants crossing the border in search of a better life. Lujan, the mother of three girls, knows that for children especially, it has likely been a violent and terrifying journey. And it is one that is becoming increasingly common, with the number of unaccompanied children (UACs) detained along the U.S.-Mexican border doubling in the last year.

Children found alone by the U.S. Border Patrol are placed in one of 75 UAC detention centers along the border. For children detained in El Paso, Lujan is there to give them something they haven't had in a long while: a mother's love.

Through a ministry at St. Pius X Church in El Paso, Lujan recruited a team to help comfort these undocumented children. "When we started this ministry four years ago, there were 70 kids and two child detention centers here in El Paso," she says. "Now there are four centers and we have 296 kids."

In fiscal year 2011, the U.S. government detained 6,854 unaccompanied minors—children fleeing their native countries alone who are caught trying to enter the United States. In fiscal year 2012, more than 14,000 children were detained. For the most part, Mexican children apprehended crossing the border are turned over to the Mexican government and are not included in those numbers. While recent numbers are not available, Border and Customs officials have in some recent years prevented as many as 100,000 minors—both accompanied and unaccompanied and including Mexicans—from entering the United States.

This youth exodus is believed to be the result of escalating violence and poverty in Latin America, especially in Central America. The Women's Refugee Commission based in New York City reports that "desperate conditions" are part of "trends in Central America, including rising crime, systemic state corruption and entrenched economic inequality." In Honduras alone, 920 children were murdered between January and March of 2012.

Most of the children come from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Many have lost their parents; others have come in search of family after being separated for years. Those who have no family may be granted asylum and enter a complex web of foster programs. Those with families in the United States who are undocumented also face deportation.

Despite all odds, even while crossing the desert, the children show a resilient and heroic will to survive. Lujan recalls the 12-year-old boy who was found carrying his 9-year-old paraplegic sister through the desert on his back.

It was Lujan's husband, Rolando, who first realized that undocumented children were being detained. With the support of the pastor of St. Pius, Monsignor Arturo Bañuelas, Norma and Rolando began the Rico Ministry for Detained Children, one of 64 ministries at the parish.

The Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services (DMRS) of Texas, which in 2011 provided pro bono legal services to 671 detained, undocumented children, connected the Rico ministry with the children's detention centers in the area. Today, 60 catechists participate in the ministry, which is divided into four groups tasked with visiting all four detention centers every Sunday. The centers also allow the children to attend church, First Communion, Thanksgiving and other holiday activities at St. Pius.

On Tuesdays the children ages 3 to 11 are also allowed to visit St. Pius for an hour and a half, and youths 12 to 17 visit on Thursdays. These are precious moments for Lujan and other mothers. When the white vans arrive at the parish, the children are greeted with hugs, food and songs. They hear Bible or children's stories that teach them "values" and how to "apply the love of God," Lujan says.

Many of the children have suffered violence and extortion by human and drug traffickers, and are traumatized from their journey. "These kids often feel the need to confess for things they've witnessed or been forced to do," says Monsignor Bañuelas, whose 11-year-old nephew, Rico Bañuelas, was murdered in a 2008 highway robbery while his family was driving to Mazatlan Beach in Mexico. The Rico ministry is named for him.

"To my knowledge this is the only parish-based ministry of its kind in the country," Monsignor Bañuelas says. "Our schoolchildren and parish have been greatly influenced by these immigrant children and their plight. We have integrated this ministry into the overall life of the parish. ... Because of the Rico ministry, children in our parish understand firsthand the need for just, comprehensive immigration reform."

Many of the children travel alone—on foot, on top of trains or with human smugglers called coyotes—as they cross the length of Mexico. "That's when they face the most tragedy," Lujan says. "They beat them, abuse them, molest them." She recalls hearing of one 9-year-old girl who was forced to sleep with a coyote.

A legal assistant from DMRS recalls interviewing some of these children, who reported coyotes and others holding minors "hostage for months" in Mexico. The farther away the family, the more money demanded. Children who no longer have parents or cannot find them are often beaten and forced to carry drugs across the border. Many of the older females arrive pregnant. Last summer, the ministry held 11 baby showers for detained girls. One girl from Guatemala who gave birth during her detention, had her four front teeth knocked out by a coyote. A dentist from the El Paso Diocese donated his services to return the girl her smile.

Every Tuesday as the mothers and children sit in a circle, each child tells a tiny sliver of his or her story. It's difficult to listen to them be brave as they tell in a child's angelic voice of their travels alone or with a coyote.

"I know this ministry has been blessed by God," says Lujan, who has witnessed miracles with the children. She tells of one example, a little girl named Estrellita, who at 2 years old was found wandering the desert alone. Sobbing the few words she knew, she said her father had died. Estrellita, which means "little star," was later adopted.

"While these children experience some of the worst trauma in life while trying to cross the border, their spirits are not totally broken," Monsignor Bañuelas says. "They are wounded, afraid and lonely but yet full of joy. Most come from very religious homes as evident in their knowledge of prayers and hymns and the stories they share. Their regular prayers are about being reconnected with their families and prayers of gratitude for life, for food, for each other. It is amazing that in spite of all their struggles, they give such profound thanks to God for their daily life."